Christmas Eve With the Pope

JOHN BURGER

Andreas Widmer was casual about his faith until an unexpected encounter with Pope John Paul II. On watch as a Swiss Guard on Christmas Eve 1986, Widmer discovered a compassionate Pope who cared deeply about his sorrow.

How did you first meet Pope John Paul II?

It was Christmas Eve. It was when reality set in: Here I was, spending my first Christmas away from home — and working as a Swiss Guard. In Switzerland, the big event at Christmastime is Christmas Eve.

I was to report to my shift at 8 p.m. and serve most of the night. Before I left for my service, I called my parents and spoke to my mother. Naturally, there was a little emotion in the conversation. You know: My mother, having her youngest son on the phone, his first Christmas Eve away from home.

Needless to say, there were tears — from her, and then from me as well.

But eventually I pried myself away from the phone and went to report to duty. I was assigned to one of the exits of the Pope's apartment that night. It was dark and lonely up there. I had plenty of time for being sad — thinking about my family in Switzerland celebrating Christmas without me. I missed them. I was pretty miserable.

A lonely night.

Yes. Then, at about 10 p.m., I received a two-minute notice that the Pope would use my exit to go celebrate midnight Mass at St. Peter's Basilica. I had just enough time to straighten out my uniform and stand properly.

The door opened, and John Paul came out and stood exactly opposite me. He stopped, looked at me and said, "We've never met. Are you new? What's your name?"

I replied.

As he got closer to shake my hand, he took a better look at me — and my cover blew right then and there. He said, "You seem to be sad. Is this your first Christmas away from home?"

I confirmed that it was.

He held my hand and elbow for what seemed to be an eternity. He looked at me with his intense, light gray eyes. Nothing else mattered to him at that moment. He was paying 100% attention to me.

Then he said: "Well, I thank you for the sacrifice you're making for the Church. I will pray for you tonight."

It was an extraordinary experience for me: Here was the leader of the Catholic Church, with all of his concerns, with the whole world to consider, and he took the time to focus just on me, for that moment, and reach out to me in my time of need.

That touched me deeply. From then on, he knew me by name, and our interactions were continuous — he picked up the thread of the conversation each time we talked. How he did that with all the people he came in contact with is beyond me — he really focuses on the individual.

What were some other encounters you had with him?

I became accustomed to my work at the Vatican. I quickly got the hang of it — maybe too well, maybe it became too much of a routine.

The work schedule as a guard is segmented into three days: two days of work and one free day. Well, it's supposed to be free. On that day, the "free" guards are assigned to serve at any special events the Pope may hold. And with the schedule John Paul keeps, the third day became the "special events" day.

One day I was assigned to serve as an honor guard during a Mass he held for the sick and disabled. It was after two long days of service, and I had been looking forward to my day off. I really needed it.

As I took my place in front of St. Peter's, next to the open-air altar, I really did not want to be there. I spent the entire one-and-a-half-hour Mass absorbed in my resentment, in self-pity and anger. Finally, the Mass ended.

A few more minutes, I thought, he'll leave, and I can enjoy the rest of my day off. But on his way out, John Paul looked into the crowds and walked down the stairs into St. Peter's Square to the first row of pilgrims.

I wanted to shout, "Hey, stop that, that's not in the plan. You're supposed to leave now." But the Holy Father began to greet and bless the first, then the second, then the third pilgrim — and he took his own sweet time doing it.

My impatience boiled over, my feet hurt, my back ached. I was sweating and uncomfortable from standing in the open sun for hours.

That's when you saw the Pope?

I don't know what triggered it, but my eyes came into focus on the Pope interacting with a handicapped man.

The person had no arms and no legs: his body was severely malformed.

As an interpreter communicated with him by touching his hands in certain ways and sequences, I realized that this person was also blind and deaf. Yet the guy was beaming with happiness. He was pure joy as he interacted with the Holy Father.

I was dumbstruck: Here I am, involved in my own petty complaints, yet I am healthy. I was suddenly happy to have legs that hurt.

As I looked out over the square, I saw hundreds and hundreds of wheelchairs and hospital beds with pilgrims wanting to see the Pope. And John Paul went row after row, blessing them and talking with them. They had the opportunity to experience what I did on Christmas Eve in the palace.

That made me feel ashamed.

I was privileged to be part of John Paul's ministry, yet I was too absorbed in my own little world to realize it. I'm sure the Pope was also tired. It was four hours since the Mass started, yet he took his time, making sure he did not miss anyone and that he spent the same amount of attention on each person.

How did it affect your work?

It opened my eyes: He is a Pope of compassion. He takes his ministry beyond officiating at Masses and audiences. He delves into the pilgrims as a pastor, focusing on them, hearing their stories, one by one.

After this experience, where the Pope showed me that I was partaking in his ministry, I started to pay more attention to his speeches. His actions inspired me — they made me want to listen more carefully to what he had to say. He actually made sense.

I started to collect some of his speeches so I could read them again in quiet. It was like discovering a treasure, pearl by pearl.

Did you see a side of him that we don't see?

We'd invite the Holy Father to lunch at our barracks once in a while. He was very happy to come. He was interested in our lives, what we were doing, how we were doing.

He always picked up the conversation where we left off. We'd try to cook something Swiss.

One guy took pictures of our daily life, and we showed them to the Pope. It was a very humorous affair to have him comment on things he doesn't normally see.

One guard was in a particular uniform, which we never wear in the Holy Father's presence, and the Pope said, "What army was this gentleman from?"

You hear in the media about people in the Vatican as if they are in an ivory tower. I was impressed with how connected with the world the Pope is.

I talked to him about meeting a young woman from the United States, who was studying in Rome — Michelle, who is now my wife.

How did this come up? Did you approach him, or did he draw it out of you?

Our exchanges, short as they may have been at times, always seemed to pick up from where they left off. At my final meeting, he asked me what led to my decision to leave, and I told him of meeting Michelle.

He was very supportive and understanding; we had a very nice, albeit short, discussion about the relationship and my future in which he gave me his parting advice. He again assured me of his prayers and he blessed our young love at that time. What struck me specifically is that he always knew how to engage a young person: He joked, teased a bit, yet during all of it, he actually conveyed very profound and helpful guidance.

Like a parish priest!

He's a pastor who deeply understands the human heart and psyche. Anyone who doubts that should read his books, Love and Responsibility or The Theology of the Body. He has a keen understanding of the human condition.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

John Burger. "Christmas Eve With the Pope." National Catholic Register. (December, 2002).

This article is reprinted with permission from National Catholic Register. All rights reserved. To subscribe to the National Catholic Register call 1-800-421-3230.

Copyright 2002 National Catholic Register


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